March 2, 2013

How my Mother Saved my Life

Last year I was riding my bike up a narrow street, with cars parked on either hand. Suddenly a car door popped open, right in my path. Too late to swerve. I clenched the brakes, hit the door, and flew off the bike.

A moment later I was on my feet, fifteen yards down the road, jolted but perfectly fine. According to bystanders, I had flown over the door, gone headfirst toward the pavement, done an elegant shoulder-roll, and come up on my feet, and trotted to a stop. “That was pretty impressive,” said one of them. The onlookers seemed more shaken than I was.

A nice bruise developed on my hip: I think I slammed it against one of my handle-bars on my way off the bike. But no other injuries: not a scratch, not a scrape.

I was absurdly fortunate. People get killed that way. All I remember of my flight is seeing the pavement coming and ducking my head. A “tick” as my helmet tapped the ground, and then being on my feet. But it was familiar. I'd done it before, somewhere, sometime... when?

It was months later that it suddenly came to me: gymnastics. Grade school. I was always terrible at sports, in grade school, with the single odd exception of gymnastics, which I had some talent for. My mother had even taken me to extra gymnastics lessons, somewhere: I had a single vivid memory of mastering forward flips off a springboard, in a place that is otherwise unfamiliar to me: floor mats, sweat, sour dust, the leather handle of the horse, chalk on the uneven bars. Forty some years ago, I had learned what to do when hurtling headfirst at the ground. Duck your head, give way with the foremost shoulder, and let the roll happen. If you're still moving too fast when you come out, let another roll happen.

What strikes me now is that my body remembered what I had learned forty years before, called it up in a flash, and used it, while my conscious mind had so thoroughly lost the memory that it took months to find it again.

Thanks, Mom. I doubt I was properly grateful at the time!

I think there's two obvious lessons here: one is, see to it that your kids do some gymnastics, formally or informally; and the other is, what your body learns in scary circumstances, it doesn't soon forget.


  1. I should probably add the correction, to be precise (and pedantic), that it's the brain & nervous system that remembers these things, not the rest of the body, which has no capacity for such complex memory. "Body memory" and "muscle memory" are metaphors for "memory triggered by sensation and translated to motor activity with little or no conscious thought."

  2. It's amazing how our bodies just go into autopilot when accidents occur. Glad to hear that you remained unscathed from your incident!

  3. As a child my mother drilled into all of this saying, "you are going to break your neck!" It didn't matter if we were climbing trees or roller-skating she watched us as a nervous wreck. I read this and thought, "I'm so glad I watched my boys do flips while snow-boarding, climb the highest mountains in Wyoming and kayak down raging rivers (obviously I didn't literally watch that) without saying one word of discouragement to them." So maybe some day I'll save their lives. Or maybe I already have. Thanks. Write more!!